Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ultimate Virtual Expedition to Mars Wins U.S. Army Challenge

CTU instructor's virtual Mars expedition wins Army challenge

2010-06-12 18:51:38
Slip into a spacesuit, step into your spacecraft and prepare for takeoff to Mars — all from your computer chair.
It’s now possible with an award-winning program developed by a team of virtual-reality experts that includes a Colorado Technical University professor.
The program, called the Mars Expedition Strategy Challenge, was the $25,000 grand-prize winner in the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge, a contest launched by the U.S. Army in August 2009.
Created by CTU-Colorado Springs computer science professor Cynthia Calongne and the Air Force’s Air University professors Mike McCrocklin Andrew Stricker, a retired Air Force officer, the program allows participants to experience space travel firsthand.
It was developed in Second Life, an online virtual world in which users interact as avatars.
Users notice satellites, asteroid belts and comets passing by. They hear, see and feel the takeoff.
They are engaged in decision-making and cannot move forward to the next phase until they demonstrate what they’ve learned by taking a quiz.
They face the same questions a NASA commission examined while looking at options for future human space travel.
“It’s not like, ‘Let’s go read some theory about NASA’s program,’” Calongne said. “We use Second Life in many ways, but in particular to make learning come alive.”
The program was developed to answer questions about space travel, and it was later submitted to the contest. The $25,000 was given to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., for research and development, Calongne said.
It was the program’s ability to engage learners that made it stand out to judges in the challenge, said Tami Griffith, science and technology manager for games and virtual worlds for learning for the U.S. Army Simulation and Training Technology Center, which created and sponsored the contest.
“If you can engage learners, you’re going to be more successful at teaching them,” Griffith said. “The whole intent of the challenge was to go out there and see who has mastered that — engaging learners. This entry was exemplary in that way.”
Students in Stricker’s classroom at Air University at Maxwell are “fascinated” by the program.
“Every time we introduce real-life challenges to students, it captures their imaginations,” Stricker said. “A lot of times, students assume the answer is in textbooks, but lots of times the biggest challenges are still out there to be worked on. (The students) have a role to play; they can help us.”
But the program is not just for students. Anyone with a computer can try it by contacting one of the developers.
And it’s important that people from various backgrounds access the program and try to answer questions about space travel, Stricker and Calongne said.
“It’s amazing how many people think, ‘My ideas don’t matter,’” Calongne said. “And it’s really not true at all.”
One of the greatest benefits of Second Life is that it allows the global community to come together to share ideas, she said.
The Mars Expedition Strategy Challenge allows users to answer questions about space travel, such as whether the U.S. should invest its time and energy into visiting the planet.
“The space program is everyone’s program, not just scientists and engineers and congressmen,” Calongne said. “We all have vested interest in it.”
A person doesn’t have to be a professor at a university to have important input, Stricker said. Using a virtual space means many opinions can be shared, he said.
“They can share thoughts that we normally otherwise wouldn’t have even considered,” Stricker said. “It’s a rare opportunity for us, because it’s hard to get those kinds of inputs.”

Visit Second Life at
To try out the Mars Expedition Strategy Challenge, contact Cynthia Calongne at

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